The Email Opportunist

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Email's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Here's how marketers overcome the latter to capitalize on the former.

Direct mail is marketing's stallion: a consistent winner, but costly. Social and mobile are the show horses: full of tricks, but sometimes get tripped up. But email…. Email is marketing's workhorse—always dependable, supports and connects other channels, cost effective, and continually evolving. All of these positive attributes, however, don't guarantee that email marketing will get the job done. The fact is, email's greatest strengths often double as its greatest weaknesses. Fortunately, savvy marketers can overcome the latter to capitalize on the former. Here, 16 marketing experts provide advice on how.

Gordon Evans, VP of Product Marketing, Salesforce Marketing Cloud
Customers today expect a seamless and personalized experience from the companies and brands they do business with, through every stage of their journey with a business. Email is the connective tissue of this customer journey—a connecting fiber between the multitude of digital channels that helps to keep customers satisfied on every front. A MarketingSherpa survey reveals that a vast majority (91%) of U.S. adults say they like getting promotional emails from companies they do business with. Of those, 86% would like monthly emails and 61% would like them at least weekly.

Email is a great standalone channel of engagement, but its real strength lies in the fact that it can be combined with other channels to achieve a heightened level of personalization for consumers. For example, email can be combined with predictive intelligence to let marketers create personalized messages that result in more clicks and conversions by design, driving net-new revenue.

The problem arises when marketers use email to blast content to customers without taking their specific needs and preferences into consideration; this only serves to create disengagement. The key to using email effectively is ensuring that the outreach is as tailored and personalized as possible, driving true relevance for customers. 

Malinda Wilkinson, CMO, Salesfusion
From messaging to design, advancements in email marketing technology provide marketers with greater insights into customer and prospect behavior. Reporting has become much more intuitive. With a click of a button, for example, marketers can quickly and easily identify what resonates best with their target audiences. They can leverage that information to create even more of what they know works best.

Email's biggest weakness is its ubiquity. There's just so much. Marketers can separate their messages from other inbox clutter by writing more compelling subject lines and providing more engaging content to differentiate their offerings from the crowd. Most email marketing platforms have testing capabilities, so start by crafting two unique subject lines, then A/B test them to find which is most effective. To take things further, also use those testing capabilities to measure the performance of your email design and content. 

Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS Institute
Customers value email. In fact, according to 2015 MarketingSherpa research surveying 2,057 U.S. adults, every age group prefers companies to communicate with them through email. And customers value email for the same reason marketers should. As long as you have deliverability figured out, in a hectic world, email stops customers and forces them to take action.

Unlike social media, pre-roll online videos, even TV advertising, email cannot be simply ignored. That action may be a “delete” or an “unsubscribe,” but action equals opportunity for your business. Those moments of interaction with customers have value, and to get the most from them, you must deliver expected value: a relevant discount or offer, helpful content, the utility of transactional email.

However, these interactions happen in a noisy world. To stick out, you must deliver that value with a painless customer experience. Test to discover what your customers want so you can deliver value while also removing friction and anxiety in the process of taking them from a value-focused email to an optimized website. 

Jose Cebrian, Vice President and General Manager, Email and Mobile Messaging, Merkle
Email remains the preferred channel for consumer communications, according to a recent Merkle survey. In fact, email's greatest strength is that it can be used to rapidly drive specific actions; it's fast, cost-effective, and scalable. Marketers can capitalize on this for both one-time and automated campaigns to cost-effectively drive sales, registrations, app downloads, etc. Merkle research has also found that, when combined with other channels such as social and direct mail, email can generate response rates 1.5 to 3.8 times higher than one channel alone.

Email's weakness is the various intermediaries—such as Internet Service Providers and Realtime Blackhole lists—that stand between marketers and their customers. These intermediaries are important because they provide the mailboxes (ISPs) and protect us from the spam epidemic (RBLs). They have a vested interest in protecting their customers, but their presence impacts marketer's behavior in the channel. Marketers should challenge so-called best practices to find their own set of segmentation and sending protocol that maximizes results while respecting consumer preferences and known ISP rules. Additionally, email marketers should create extra reach and frequency in other addressable channels in a privacy policy-compliant way.

Andrea Gohr, Product Manager of Email Solutions, BlueSoho
Email's greatest strength is its reach. As one of the most highly trafficked channels, email can be used to easily grab subscribers' attention, directing them to a strong call-to-action for increased engagement, brand awareness, and ROI. Marketers should target messages based on individual demographic and behavioral data to leverage this reach and capitalize on content that's shared.

Email's greatest weakness involves the inconsistencies in appearance due to the wide array of applications, email clients, and varying computer settings. A misconstrued template can negatively affect brands and, ultimately, the user experience. To avoid any inconsistencies, marketers must make sure to code templates responsively, accounting for the most common processing systems and email applications. The design should be tested on multiple devices or an accountable simulator.

Chad White, Research Director, Litmus
Email's greatest strength is that it's the most used one-to-one marketing channel. While other channels struggle to move beyond broadcast messaging, email allows marketers to deliver relevant content at scale to subscribers based on who they are, what they're trying to do, timing, location, the device and email client they're using, and other contextual factors. Marketers should use tools and tactics such as segmentation, personalization, triggers, testing, and analytics to capitalize on the channel and deliver engaging and highly profitable subscriber experiences.

Email's greatest weakness is that it's an open platform controlled by many companies. As a result, the deliverability and rendering of emails will vary from one email client to another. Unlike in the Web world, there are no accepted email coding standards, so coding an email is a combination of playing to the lowest common denominator and including hacks that target particular email clients. The Internet of Things and wearables—such as the Apple Watch, which recognizes a brand new flavor of HTML: watch-HTML—will further complicate rendering and deliverability in the future. The increasingly complex email landscape means it's more important than ever to test before sending, track performance, and always look for opportunities to improve the subscriber experience.

Blaise Lucey, Senior Content Strategist, Bitly
Despite the ever-growing number of factors that comprise a successful digital campaign, email has proven itself as one of the most reliable channels for digital ROI. Why? Because its path-to-conversion is far more obvious than others in the omnichannel mix: Marketers send a sales or promotional email and the action occurs right after. Metrics for success are fairly easy to identify—as long as customers are clicking through to a product page, it's usually a good sign.

One of email's biggest challenges is that optimizing and A/B testing has become quite challenging in the mobile era, but it's completely necessary for impactful campaigns. For example, marketers need to test frequency, subject lines, and segmentation across all devices to determine what's working and what's not (especially if open rates are low). Luckily, tools exist that can help alleviate this challenge and allow marketers to render emails in every possible format to test user experience across devices and channels.

Justin Foster, Cofounder and VP of Market Development, Liveclicker
One of email's greatest strengths, simply, is that it works. Email has been shown to be a solid source for leads and a strong revenue channel. For example, 15 to 20% or more of retailers' revenue is attributed to the email channel. Look at B2B companies: Many see greater return on their email campaigns than on tradeshows and events that they spend 10 to 20 times more on than email. From an ROI point of view, email is a no-brainer.

Another email strength is that it's universal. Almost everyone has an email address, and it functions as the digital connector between other channels. We read a lot of “death of email” articles, but I think that's the furthest thing from the truth.

Despite email's strengths, many perceive a weakness of email to be the 80/20 problem. For 80% of email recipients, marketers have limited customer data available—maybe just a name or details on something someone may have purchased a long time ago—so they have traditionally been unable to personalize emails to those customers and prospects. Personalization has been shown to increase email's effectiveness. With new technologies, there's a huge opportunity to now personalize emails for everyone in a marketer's database, whether or not they have customer data. Marketers can achieve this through using real-time functionality to customize emails based on attributes such as a customer's language or device, for example.

Ryan Phelan, VP of Marketing Insights, Adestra
With the increase of big data concepts and strategies, much more focus has been put on email marketing, and rightly so. But there are limits to what it can do. Moving into the holiday season and 2016, it's vital for all marketers to realize the limits of what we have at our fingertips.

Email's greatest strength is that can be a direct connection to the consumer at a very personal level. How many times do you check your email…even the promotional ones? It's a gateway into someone's life, comingling with messages from friends and family.

That real connection is the greatest advantage of email marketing. From that connection stems everything from response, to the extension of the relationship in other channels, through to the addressability of the consumer. Marketers are starting to realize that email is at the very center of the digital conversation—and that's because of its ability to be proactive in a communication into a personal environment, as well as the identification that it provides outside of the medium. Marketers have untapped resources at their fingertips, and the faster they actualize the data they have and the customer relationships they hold, the faster that email continues to “win.”
On the other hand, email's greatest weakness—in the words of a good friend of mine—is that sometimes email just does not work.

It's hard for many marketers to accept that. With such a vast and inexpensive resource, and with marketers' reliance on it, many marketers struggle with how it cannot work. It's not until you dig deep into the data at an individual level, do you find that there are groups of people where email is ineffective and that other channels—such as social media or even (gulp) direct mail—are more effective. Yet, email's greatest weakness is also its strength because even in a case where a cluster of people won't respond to email, the identification of the consumer for those other channels is its saving grace.

It's vital that marketers learn that sometimes email does not work and they have to focus on the customers and prospects who do want email and embrace (at even a subconscious level) the channel and the communication. Sure, give the ones that don't a try; but the ones who do truly care, those are the ones you can win with.

Gillian Ahouanvoheke, VP of Strategy,     Analytics, and Creative, Zeta Interactive
Email continues to evolve and reinvent itself as marketers become more and more savvy.

Email's ability to target individuals based on their specific interests makes it the most relevant marketing vehicle when used effectively. Smart marketers wield customer insight to craft a conversation that takes its cues from past interactions. While more timely to set up, these types of responsive, personal, automated communications can be much more effective.

But consumers get too many emails to possibly consume. Marketers are competing against the personal and marketing communications inundating inboxes. Emails only have a few seconds to catch a person's attention and convince him to respond. The more that emails can be predictive based on a person's behaviors, the better chance they have to communicate at a time, and with the content that, an individual is most interested in. 

Anthony Marnell, VP, North America, Mailjet
Email's greatest strength is that everyone has an inbox. Consumers are ready to purchase, engage, respond, or share when they're checking their inbox. They read with the mind-set of finding valuable content—whether it's a promotion, a receipt, or educational content. This is why every company should be using email to communicate with their customers. For optimal engagement, companies should respect recipients' inboxes by sending highly relevant email customers can't ignore.

On the flip side, email's greatest strength contributes to its greatest weakness. Its high ROI and ease of use create a low barrier; this means many companies are messaging too frequently. Another reason it can be tempting to email too often: It can be hard to stand out in a crowded inbox. Since the best email frequency will vary by industry, companies should listen intently to their customers and experiment to find the perfect content and cadence to engage them.

E.J. McGowan, Senior Director and GM, Campaigner
Email marketing is the granddaddy of digital marketing. It's a tried and true method, but not one without flaws.

The greatest strength of email marketing is simply that it works; the ROI is tremendous. Marketers looking to make the most of their budget should use an email marketing platform to ensure that they're being efficient in their messaging efforts. Tools such as segmentation can help marketers make sure they're targeting the right contacts with the right kind of content to promote opens and clicks.

The challenge is that email users receive more messages than they need, and marketing emails are not immune to getting lost in the shuffle. To ensure that messages rise to the top of the email stream, use a compelling subject line. A/B split testing can help identify phrases that jump out at contacts and are more likely to result in opens. Additionally, the timing of the emails matters tremendously. The best time to send will depend on your audience; again, A/B split testing can aid in finding when your contacts are most likely to interact.

Ryan Hofmann, Chief Brand Strategist, Listrak
Email's greatest strength lies in its ability to generate the highest ROI of any digital marketing channel. Email is the best channel to connect directly with customers to deliver the most relevant message at the right time at every touchpoint across the customer journey. Using targeted promotional communications to drive awareness, and personalized behavioral messages to walk customers from consideration down the path to purchase (and ideally, repeat purchase), drive loyalty, and, when necessary, reactivate lapsing and inactive customers.

And therein lies also its greatest weakness: the tendency for many marketers to treat the channel lazily or nonchalantly because of its high ROI. Too many email marketers still deliver the same message to every single subscriber on their list despite having data easily accessible to deliver targeted and personalized messages. And too few marketers are automating lifecycle messages; the biggest opportunity email marketers have today is to deliver relevant messages that will in turn deliver the highest ROI that companies are in need of in today's ultra-competitive environment.

Ben Ardito, VP and GM of Client Services, Digital Solutions, Epsilon
Today's email marketing platforms allow marketers to create and execute personalized messages quicker and sometimes easier than other channels that also have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses as a customer engagement tool.

One of email's greatest strengths is the level of personalization marketers can achieve to deliver relevant messages. Personalization tactics like time-of-open content bring real-time engagement to the email channel and are easier to execute on due to the advancement of marketing platforms. These efforts are more measurable in tracking lift and conversion than other channels offering marketers the insight they need to adjust campaigns and enhance message relevance.

Conversely, marketers still struggle to determine how much they should invest in email to give their messages more depth versus executing at the simplest level. One of email's biggest weaknesses is its ability to drive short-term sales with a lack of sophistication. This masks the long-term negative impact on customer engagement. Marketers who adopt these short-term-focused tactics often experience a leaky bucket of subscribers because their campaigns don't hold the sophistication necessary to continually engage consumers.

Loren McDonald VP of Industry Relations, Silverpop, an IBM Company
Email marketing has entered a new age of personalization. Today's connected consumers demand relevant and personalized communications across their preferred channels—and marketers are constantly challenged to meet this growing expectation.

Based on a foundation of permission, email marketing helps companies better engage throughout the customer journey by allowing marketers to provide behavior-driven content and gather deeper insights to improve future engagement and increase value to subscribers. A growing number of touchpoints across the Web, mobile and social, and offline sources such as point-of-sale and call centers provide marketers with more data, enabling them to build stronger customer relationships. Data-driven email content leaves customers feeling connected and satisfied with brands—and marketers who use this strategy can expect to see greater customer engagement, loyalty, and ultimately, sales.

Email marketing's biggest weakness is also one of its strengths: Its high ROI means it's relatively easy to have success using the channel, even with mediocre implementation. As a result, many marketers aren't moving beyond traditional batch-and-blast methods. According to IBM's 2015 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study, retail/e-commerce brands saw some of the lowest customer engagement rates—due to over-reliance on increased frequency rather than personalization and relevance. Transforming an email marketing program can't happen overnight, but brands can take a “crawl, walk, run” approach by starting with high ROI, behavior-driven programs such as cart abandonment remarketing, and then make the case for adding more data and behavior-driven programs.

Karen Blanchard VP of Marketing and Product Management, Accudata
Email provides relevant, personalized messaging to a targeted audience quickly. Marketers can effectively capitalize on the strength of email by understanding their customers' needs and buying habits. This knowledge helps marketers drive engagement with customers and identify messages that work with their ideal prospects. Casual website visitors, mobile subscribers, social media connections, and customers should receive unique email messaging based on their behaviors and displayed preferences.

Because email addresses change so frequently, ensuring that messages are hitting the intended audience can be challenging. Marketers must validate their email database to reduce bounce rate, protect their sending domain's reputation, and maximize a campaign's ROI. Using a list hygiene service to cleanse and append with newer email addresses should improve the percentage of emails that make it to the inbox and reduce the risk of being blocked by Internet Service Providers.

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